The Kennedy Missile Tapes - 24 October 1997
Thirty-five years ago this Sunday, October 26th, I woke up here in New York City and looked out the window at a sparkling, and I felt then, a God-given scene, a dazzling, crystalline day in late fall.
Looking over Central Park's rolling forest of light green, yellow, golden foliage to the west side skyline and, above it, a cloudless sky. The forest ends down to the left and gives way to a large, blue lake, a city reservoir. And on that shining morning, a seagull came winging in from the ocean and soared high over the reservoir and the park, and was gone, off to the northern horizon to tell its marvellous story.
Did I say a seagull? Of course. But for a happy split second it seemed to be a dove to announce the blessed tidings that we had, overnight, emerged and unscathed from a prospect which the previous night the President of the United States thought could be avoided only by the mercy of God. Or, what we call, luck. The prospect, in a day or two, of nuclear war.
Even people – temperamental scaremongers and bloodshot journalists – who are given to the most lurid view of any event may recoil, I think, at such a grandiose sentence. But we have only now become privy to the taped private discussions of President Kennedy and his advisors and the desperate communications with the Soviet leader, Khrushchev. I'm sure that blood-chilling sentence is nothing but the truth.
I say "only now made privy" because there has just been published, for all to read, the transcript of the tapes recorded in the White House of the two weeks of discussion between President Kennedy and his advisors on what to do about the alarming discovery by American reconnaissance planes of nuclear missiles and bases, some launching sites, in Cuba that could have been planted there only by the Soviet Union. Incidentally, some listeners may still be reeling in disbelief at the simple mention of the Kennedy tapes.
Wasn't it Mr Nixon who taped conversations in the White House? The record that eventually proved he had covered up the Watergate scandal and bribed participants to stay mum about it. Yes. But lately, it turns out that other presidents taped conversations with cronies and visitors. And only they knew they were doing it. Lyndon Johnson's most private thoughts and pep talks are now available. We hear that Franklin Roosevelt had a crude taping system, entirely at the touch of his own inclination. And only last week, President Clinton released tapes, video tapes, talking pictures no less, of meetings with foreigners and one or two shady characters, many of whom gave large sums of money to the Democratic Party.
It's enough to make you, in retrospect, feel actually sympathetic towards President Nixon. His big mistake, not done by his predecessors or successors: he forgot to turn the machine off. And the way our experience of presidential shenanigans is going, it may soon be that the big act of obstruction of justice, which is a ground for impeachment, will be turning off the tape recorder in the White House.
I ought to say, after these disheartening revelations, that President Truman did not make secret recordings. Neither did Eisenhower. And a former Clinton aide who's now free to feel relieved, said chucklingly the other Sunday, "Nobody in the White House today dare scribble a date in his appointments book, let alone write a memo!"
But you'll have guessed that in this unexpected and unpredicted flood of presidential tapes, the now released Kennedy tapes, the two weeks of secret talks in the White House between Monday, 15 October and Saturday 27 October 1962 are at once the most historic and blood-curdling. For they record an event that has been called, without melodrama or exaggeration, "the single most dangerous episode in the history of mankind".
It began for me on, I can't swear to the date, it must have been the Saturday before Monday 15 October. In an airplane, the press plane that goes on ahead of the presidential plane wherever he's off to. President Kennedy was going off to Chicago to give a needed lift to a Democratic Senator, I believe it was a Senator, who was up for re-election in a few days' time – 1962 was what they call an "off" year. Not a presidential, but a Congressional election year.
We were flying along, then suddenly from the cockpit came striding in the president's press secretary, Pierre Salinger. He had serious news for us. He'd just been in radio touch with the president's plane. The president was showing symptoms of the flu and we were all going to turn around and go back to Washington.
I don't know how many days, we, the press, inquired about the flu, or how soon we came to know better. But we now know it must have been while the president was heading west to Chicago that he heard from the CIA the thundering news that an army reconnaissance plane had taken pictures over Cuba, that the pictures had been developed and, clear as a flower petal, were missiles and launch pads and all the paraphernalia of missile launching grounds.
On Monday 15th, Kennedy put together a committee of the Secretary of State, of Defence, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, national security advisors, and one or two other men who'd been close to the conduct of foreign affairs. The first meeting is the first recorded session of the two weeks' discussions about the developing crisis. And I ought to say now that the tapes were, technically, infinitely inferior to the Nixon tapes of a decade later, a low-pitched drone of hissing, crackling sounds, not to mention the overlapping voices that you get in any recorded conversation of a room full of people. It took two Harvard professors more than a year, with the help of expert court reporters, to improve the sounds and make all but a fraction of the dialogue understandable.
At the start, you may wonder why Mr Khrushchev was able to install such hugely visible technology without being spotted. Well, at the time, the White House was absorbed, even obsessed, with the likelihood that the Soviets were going to seize Berlin. And Cuba was not being routinely patrolled by reconnaissance planes. Mr Khrushchev's mistake, it now appears, was not to know that American reconnaissance had got to the point where photographs taken from 30,000 feet could count leaves on a tree.
The Soviet ambassador was called in and assured the president to his face that, whatever his planes saw, they could not be missiles or missile pads since the Soviet Union was quite innocent of such a plot. President Kennedy did not contradict him, just bowed him out and went back to his committee meetings. The problem of what to do with these installations was not complex. It was very stark and simple. And so were the responses the committee batted back and forth.
From the start, there was no general agreement on a course of action but, in the beginning, it was agreed that one of three things could be done. A sudden, unannounced air strike to take out, destroy the weapons, or a wider aerial attack covering airfields and storage areas. Thirdly, to mount as soon as possible a full-scale invasion of Cuba. Kennedy heard all the suggestions and all the alternatives, tapped his pencil, made only one positive assertion, "We're certainly going to do number one. We're going to take out those missiles!"
Through the next six days and nights, the discussions probed all the likely Soviet responses to any, and all, military action. To delay or tip the Soviets off to a chosen form of action would hasten their building and probably make them move the missiles underground somewhere. To delay, while making martial sounds in Khrushchev's direction, might make him come out more defiantly in support of Fidel Castro, a position from which he could then not retreat.
It took a week for the fourth alternative to grow and become the one favoured by the president: a proclaimed naval blockade of Cuba. And this, too, was ferociously debated. It's remarkable that the Senate's King of the Doves, when later it came to Vietnam, Senator William Fulbright, was dead against the blockade because it would announce a direct confrontation with Khrushchev. Kennedy's brother called it "a slow form of death". Fulbright, like the top military, was all for an all-out invasion.
After the president announced the blockade over national television, everybody waited for Russian ships on the way to Cuba to turn back or risk attack. Khrushchev offered privately to remove the missiles if the United States would promise not to invade. Then he suggested removing the Cuban missiles in exchange for the American removal of allied missiles in Turkey. To do that, Kennedy thought, would invite the outrage of the NATO allies and perhaps mark the end of NATO itself.
All this while, new photographs showed that the Russians were hectically installing missiles. At the end of the second week, Kennedy, having gone ahead with the blockade and secretly massed in Florida an invasion force larger than anything since D-Day, he called in the Congressional leaders of both parties and wearily told them not to expect a peaceful solution. If we stop one Russian ship, it means war. If we invade Cuba, it means war. There's no telling.
He went to bed on the Saturday night fairly convinced in his own mind that a war was imminent and that it would begin probably with the Russians firing tactical nuclear weapons at Florida. He said goodnight to the committee. The machine was turned off. He hoped he'd see them tomorrow. None of us might ever see each other now. It's up to luck.
At dawn the next day, the marvellous news came in that the Russians' lead ship, the Grozny, had turned back from the blockade. That was the Sunday morning that, against a clear blue sky, a seagull flew in from the ocean, looking like a dove.
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